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Christopher Ondaatji

The Village in the Jungle

by Leonard Woolf

Eland Publishing : £12.99

Leonard Woolf's 1913 novel The Village in the Jungle has been re-published in English.  The new edition also contains one of Woolf's three short stories, ‘Pearls and Swine’, originally published by Hogarth Press in Stories of the East in 1921. Although it is his best, it is sad that the other two stories, ‘A Tale Told by Moonlight’ and ‘The Two Brahmans’, were not also included.                       
Leonard Woolf started writing The Village in the Jungle in October 1911, three or four  months after returning to England from Ceylon, and continued to work at the novel for a year.  The work was dedicated to Virginia Woolf with the words:
                        ‘I've given you all the little, that I've to give;
                       You've given me all, that for me is all there is;
                       So now I just give back what you've given –
                       If there is anything to give in this.’

However Virginia Woolf does not appear to have been very interested in The Village in the Jungle, either at the time of its publication or in later life. According to Bella Woolf (Leonard's sister), she thought that Woolf's second novel, The Wise Virgins, better than his first. Her indifference is not at all surprising. The Village in the Jungle differs from the vast majority of novels with a colonial setting written at that time in that its main characters were all non-whites, and peasants to boot. Even Forster's A Passage to India, published a decade later, would avoid drawing its Indian characters from the lower strata of society. When Woolf's closest friend Lytton Strachey read the novel he detested it and wrote to Saxon Sydney-Turner: ‘I was disappointed to see that it was about nothing but blacks – whom really I don't much care for.’ The Bloomsbury Group may have been radicals in Edwardian English society, but they were not radical enough to take seriously a viewpoint utterly removed from their own intellectual and aesthetic world, even through the literary filter of one of their own number.

Woolf's novel is emphatically not about what the East means to white people; it does not fantasise about the jungle and the people who live there from a European perspective. Instead it shows a remarkable empathy for the hard lives of poor Sinhalese jungle dwellers. Though it undoubtedly is anti-imperialist, The Village in the Jungle is a more complex work that has earned a place in English literature long after the passing of the imperial milieu that produced it.

There was little doubt, in the view of the critic Alec Waugh, that no Western novelist such as Kipling, Maugham or Forster had successfully created an Asian character – until Waugh was advised by a Malay student to read Woolf's novel.  Waugh did so and wrote to Woolf in the 1960s:  ‘You have done what I did not think was possible for a Westerner to do – get inside the mind and heart of the Far East.  It is a unique achievement.’

The Sri Lankan literary critic Nihal Fernando rates Woolf’s writing above the efforts of indigenous writers. ‘Though Woolf was an Englishman, his sympathy for and imaginative insight into the lives of the simple villages was such that he was able to realise in his art a level of realism which is totally lacking in the works of local authors who attempt to deal with similar subjects and experiences.’ The late Ranjith Goonewardene, another local critic, held the same view. Woolf's characters were alive for Goonewardene, unlike the characters in Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Forster's A Passage to India, whom Goonewardene considered to be somewhat lifeless metaphors.  Neither Conrad nor Forster shared Woolf's rare dedication to the foreign people he was describing, his knowledge of their languages, and his experience of living among them in relative isolation from colonial white society. All these factors combined in his novel to make it authentic, and Quentin Bell said as much in his affectionate introduction to Woolf's autobiography, written after Leonard Woolf's death: ‘In The Village in the Jungle Leonard comes so close to direct reporting of that which he has seen that we are continually held, delighted and horrified by what he has to say.’  In fact Bell goes on to say that Woolf's work need not have been a work of fiction and would have been better had he not imposed a fictional form on it.  But this is a minority view. While it is true that no major novelist has embraced Woolf's novel as a great novel, almost everyone who has read it agrees that it is of real and continuing interest from many perspectives: historical, political, sociological, economic and, not least, literary.

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